This winter holiday, I stayed in Korea for … reasons. But amid all my boring yet stressful classwork and job hunting, I managed to squeeze in a trip to the frozen north (not the country) to frolic on a frozen river and try my hand at catching the delicious and famous river trout through the ice. Leave it to Korea to make an ice fishing festival the event of the snowy season.
World’s Largest Indoor Ice Sculptures
It took about an hour to get to the festival from our hotel, but we still arrived early in the day. I had read the pamphlet ahead of time and knew my priorities for the day. First things first, I had to find the ice sculptures. Maybe it’s a holdover from my brief stay in Texas, maybe it’s my American-ness showing through, or maybe they’re just frickin’ awesome, but I love going to see “The World’s Largest”s. Combine something as beautiful as ice carvings with “World’s Largest” and it’s a magnet.
According to the map, I had to leave the river and head in to the city. It seemed like walking distance, but there’s no scale to these festival maps, so I really had no idea. I headed in what seemed like the right direction and soon became disoriented. Lucky for me, I found a helpful parking lot attendant I could ask, and she spoke wonderful English. I don’t expect it. I ask in Korean now because I can, but I think people like practicing their English on me and will often respond in English if they’re able.
It was a bit farther than I thought it would be, but it was not at all hard to find since the main street of the town had been completely decked out in paper mache fish and I only had to follow the decorations straight to the exhibition hall.
My tour group had purchased special “foreigner” passes for us which included free entrance to many activities around the festival, so I simply had to show my pass at the door and I was waved inside. A few twisting hallways and some airlock flaps later, I was standing in a room roughly the size of a small airplane hangar surrounded by towering ice constructions.
Lights had been frozen into the ice so that it glowed from within. Some ice had been colored before freezing to make opaque blocks for flowers and animals. Nearly everything was inviting us to touch and climb on it, with only a few special items having “don’t touch” signs. Children and adults alike wasted no time exploring, climbing, and posing for photos.
Soon I headed into the ice tunnel under the main structure and found myself in the next chamber surrounded by castles, turrets, and SLIDES! Two long slides came down on either side of the structure I had just come through, landing riders into ball pits for fun and safety.
I watched for a while, then mounted the stairs. I was pleased to see the ice stairs were cut with treads for grip to keep us from slipping while climbing up or down. From the top, the view was even more spectacular and I started to realize how big the World’s Biggest actually is.
The most successful sliders had been able to stay on their feet, crouching on the way down without letting their pants touch the ice slide. I tried this technique, but my left foot went out from under me almost immediately and I landed on my bum. Fortunately, I was already crouched down, so it wasn’t far. I tried to slide down the rest of the way on my bottom, but my jeans refused to slide! I had to get back up on my feet about three more times to get to the ball pit, but it was worth it.
As I moved through the display, marveling at the sheer size of these ice buildings, I noticed some signs that indicated each one was a replica of a famous work of architecture from around the world.
St. Vladimir Cathedral (Russia)
The Vancouver Art Gallery (Canada)
The Church of Gran Madre de Dio (Italy)
The Storting (Norway)
Zenko-ji Temple (Japan)
The Temple of Heaven (China)
Utah State Capitol Building (USA)
I spent far too long exploring the beautiful towers of light and ice, admiring the shifting colors, the grand towering replicas that defied me to resort to panorama mode in order to capture their full form, the tiny air bubbles and crystalline formations inside the blocks that caught and played with the light, and the sheer exuberance of everyone in attendance as they ran from place to place trying to take it all in and touch everything with brief pauses for photos in between.
I don’t know why the world’s largest indoor ice sculptures are here in this small town in Korea rather than in someplace like Dubai (which loves indoor snow) or Toronto which has a ready supply of cold, or really anyplace with an international airport. But here it is. And it is marvelous.
*You can see more pictures on the Facebook Album.
The next activity on my list was ice fishing. I’ve never done it before and where better to try for the first time than an ice fishing festival. For those of you picturing a lone fisher next to a single hole out on a frozen lake, or even a portable cabin that can be moved from ice hole to ice hole, banish these vast landscape of wilderness images from your minds. In Hwacheon, hundreds of holes were cut in the thick ice of the river at regular intervals where visitors could go to try their hand at catching a trout.
As I came back up the main road and approached the river, I could see where the flowing water and frozen surface met downstream of the festival proper. I headed upstream and was soon in the midst of crowds of ice fishers. The Koreans all seemed to have their own equipment, and I had been told my equipment rental was included in my entrance pass, but I had no idea where to go to get it. I stopped at one of the entrance gates to inquire, and showed my pass, but was told that this area was not for foreigners, I had to keep going about 10 minutes.
Odd, segregated fishing, but I suppose it might help them to provide better services to the foreigners if we’re all in one place? I walked and walked and walked. I saw many more fishing areas, but none for foreigners. It didn’t help that the brochure map we had been given had simply been translated into English rather than being marked for foreign visitors, so there was no marker for the foreigner fishing area on my map. Finally I was sure I’d gone too far, and so I asked again and was told this time to go back the way I’d come about 10 minutes…
You can imagine I was less than pleased. I explained I’d come from that direction and had not seen it at all. The poor young man was flummoxed because while he understood me well enough, he didn’t quite know a) how to express himself and b) where exactly it was. So we went to the information tent and he called someone and they showed me on the map in the tent where to go. It was the area marked as Children’s Fishing which was also not labeled on my map. I only remembered passing it because it had a huge sign at the entrance.
I said as much and after some linguistic confusion in which both of us forgot the word for children in each other’s languages (vocabulary always abandons you when you need it most), some further rapid Korean with the woman on the phone, and handing the phone to me for far less rapid English, it was determined that the Children’s area and the Foreigner’s area were the same.
I thanked him for his help and headed back towards the kids area. I was starting to have a rough time with the crowd. I sometimes feel like there’s some hidden crowd language in Korea I’m just not getting, but it seems like no matter which way I’m going or which side of the path I’m on, it’s wrong, and people will bash into me and give me dirty looks. It’s not actually something that happens every day (or at least I don’t notice it every day if it does), but it tends to happen more at events and festivals.
I know every culture has it’s own unwritten rules for sharing space, but I can’t seem to figure these out. And on that day, I was getting shoulder checked pretty regularly by people coming toward me. The hard part is, I don’t even know if it’s passive aggressive or if they are really just so different that this bumping doesn’t seem rude to them. But I had been walking a long time with no break. Breakfast was a long time ago. I just wanted to catch a fish for lunch and was struggling to find the one spot I was allowed to fish in of the hundreds of fishing holes around me, and I was getting run into… a lot.
The kids area turned me away, too. Politely. And they did finally manage to tell me that I needed to cross the river to get to the foreigners’ side, which was the first time anyone had done so. However, even though the foreigners’ fishing area was simply on the opposite bank, and the river was frozen solid, there was no way across there.
I looked around debating between trying to find a place on the ice where foot traffic was allowed all the way across or going back up to one of the bridges above. The reason the ice was not passable was that every bit of it was covered in some kind of festival activity. Fishing holes took about half the space (not all in one area), but there was a bobsled, an inner-tube sled, a zip-line, ice skating, hand pushed sledding, curling, ice soccer, and some kind of area with large robots children could ride in and enact mecha-battles, as well as the oh so very famous bare handed trout catching. That river was covered in fun.
I spotted stairs down the far bank and decided the bridge was a better option, so I hoofed it back over to a staircase, across the long suspension bridge, and over to the concrete stairs I’d seen only to find that they were blocked off at the top!
I think I still would have gotten lost even if I hadn’t gone to see the ice sculptures first because our bus parked quite near those blocked steps, and also near the suspension bridge. So near, in fact, that most of us crossed that bridge first thing. Even though all the services for foreigners were practically right under it. I should have just gotten a snack when I started feeling stressed. I should have gotten food and sat down, but I kept thinking I was just a few more minutes away from my goal. I could make it a few more minutes… until I couldn’t. It’s important to me to remember this even though it wasn’t fun because I need to remember to rest, to eat, to give myself space when I start to feel frustrated instead of pushing on.
With only one more wrong turn (I foolishly went into the building labeled Foreigner’s Fishing thinking I might pick up my rental rod there, but nope) I at last had my tiny blue fishing rod and my own hole in the ice. As I stood there working out the fishing technique by watching others, I began to relax and look around. I might have a small clue why people enjoy fishing other than eating fish. I was dubious of how this would work because our hooks had no bait, only a lure. It didn’t take long before the first person near me caught a fish and hauled it flopping out of the freezing water and onto the ice.
It’s not fair that fish aren’t cute. I don’t know if I could watch someone catch a chicken or a small mammal and be ok, but fish just don’t phase me. In fact, I felt better about the old men who walloped their fish unconscious or dead quickly than the more squeamish younger people who let them suffocate in the provided plastic bags.
I worked on my technique a little. Trick is to let the lure hit bottom (it’s not far), then reel it in about 5-10 cm as your low point. Jerking the line up toward the surface quickly simulates the darting motion of a real tiny fish which attracts the trout. I tried it a few different ways with no luck as more and more fishers around me caught their own lunches. I knew I didn’t have to catch one to eat one, my foreigner pass entitled me to one free cooked trout whether I caught it myself or not, but I still wanted to try. I gave myself 30 minutes because I did still want to do a couple other things at the festival.
I never even got a nibble. But I did feel better. Even though I was cold and standing on the ice, there was something soothing about the repetitive motion of casting and reeling the line while watching the festival go on around me. I packed it in with only a little regret and went to find the food tent. Like so much at the festival, the foreigners had our very own (there was one for Koreans on the other side of the river, I’m still not sure how I feel about the segregation). Fish that people had caught were dropped off at the window of a field kitchen to be cleaned and wrapped in foil before being cooked.
The cooking method was a huge iron contraption with dozens of drawers that could be pulled out, have a foil wrapped fish inserted, and closed again to seal the fish inside the charcoal heated interior. I found some of my tour-mates inside the restaurant and cashed in my free fish coupon. I received possibly the ugliest presentation of the most delicious fish ever. I was very hungry and cold, but also happy. Maybe my hunger contributed to my perception of the flavor, but it was a damn fine fish. Fresh ice water trout caught only moments before it was cooked and served to me. It also made me feel better about not catching one, since the fish cook rotation meant that no one actually got served the same fish they turned in.
I have been living in Korea long enough now that dissecting the fish with chopsticks didn’t phase me in the slightest and I even managed to pull out the skeleton whole when I was halfway through. I ate that entire fish and thanked it profusely for giving it’s life to me. Despite this fact, my stomach wasn’t quite full from what turned out to be a very late lunch. I went back to the “restaurant” to see what other ways the trout was being prepared. There were fried cutlets and spicy sauces, but it was the sushi that caught my eye. Fresh trout sushi!? Um, yes please. And everything was so cheap because they were using the fish caught only a few meters away.
After lunch, I ducked into a heated resting area to warm up a bit and met a man who had brought his entire family up from the Philippines just so his kids could see snow. He told me about the places in America he had visited, and I told him about my joys in Bohol. It was amazing to me that tourists were coming from so far to this ice fishing festival. I guess it’s a bigger deal than I knew.
When I could feel my toes again, I headed off to the last free ticket item on my list: the snow slide. This giant built up slide of ice and snow dominated the riverside. It’s top was at the street level and it’s bottom met the frozen river. Riders carried up inflated rings to toboggan downward and see how far out on the ice they could get the momentum to take them. I didn’t have much time left before our bus was leaving, but I figured I could make it at least once.
This time, I crossed the river on the icy surface instead of taking the bridge because I could see that although the slide started at the top, the line started at the bottom. My foreigner pass pinned to my jacket (yeah, they said we had to wear them like that, class field trip style), I was ushered past the ticket line and given a sticker for 3 free slides! I got in the line to collect my inner-tube and watched as the kids ahead were fitted out with helmets. Adults were allowed to take the risk of going bare headed.
We trudged dutifully up the covered ramp. Most of the small children were lugging sleds as big as themselves but managing. One poor girl, maybe 3-4 years old had been sent on by her parents (who I guess were planning to take video from the bottom?) and the inner-tube was actually bigger than she was. Had I been closer in line, I would have carried it for her, but eventually between the bigger kids in line and the staff at the top, she managed to get there.
The slide was wide, 10 or more spaces across with sturdy metal handles for riders to grip as we tried to sit down on the tubes without slipping on the ice. With 3 layers of clothes plus jacket, I wasn’t bending too well, but I made it in time, and when the whistle blew I launched my sled forward and down. The slope was much smoother than the one at Nami Island and I picked up speed immediately, but also never caught any air time.
I don’t know why we scream and holler in roller coasters and fast rides. I don’t know if it’s American, or Western or what. I know that a long time ago, I was scared of roller coasters and when I finally got over that fear, I was taught by my family about the joys of a good loud yell in the thrill of the moment.
I do know that I was the only person trailing a triumphant “WOOOOO HOOO HOOO HOOO!” on the way down the slope. I am not ashamed.
Finally it was time to head back. I barely managed to cross the bridge, find a bathroom and buy some hot cocoa for the road in time. Even still, I was somehow the last person back on the bus, and no matter how much the tour leader assured me that I wasn’t late, it felt weird to be the oldest person there and the last one out having fun. I’m still not ashamed.
Hwacheon Ice Fishing Festival: overall opinion?
As much as I enjoyed the trip to a land of ice and snow and all the fun experiences new and renewed that I was able to have there, I am so ready for winter to end! We’ve had several weeks of below freezing temperatures (-10 C!) with dangerously low humidity (10%). Somewhere, a Canadian is reading this blog and scoffing, but the heater in my classrooms either doesn’t work or barely works and it takes me hours to warm up after sitting in this ice cold building all day. The Ice Festival was actually warmer than Busan is now. The inside of my refrigerator is probably warmer than the inside of my school. Hurry up, Spring!